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Obama election-year pullbacks on safety, environment dismay advocates

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Two summers ago, Wyatt Whitebread drowned in corn at the age of 14.

It happened on a hot July morning, while he was working at a grain handling operation in Mount Carroll, Ill. Soon after Whitebread climbed inside a storage bin to help empty it, equipment whirring nearby created a downward force, essentially turning the corn beneath the boy’s feet into quicksand.

Whitebread and a 19-year-old co-worker were sucked below 30 feet of grain, and suffocated.

The tragedy captured the attention of U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, who declared: “It is unconscionable to allow a minor to work in any high-hazard area.”

Yet late last month, the Obama administration scrapped proposed rules intended to expand protection for minors in rural communities. The rules, which were announced in the fall, would have barred anyone under 18 from working in a commercial grain handling operation while also strengthening other safety measures for children working on farms.

Many safety advocates and environmentalists contend that the abandoned rules fit a pattern: As the November presidential election draws nearer, they say the Obama administration is retreating from its one-time goals, trying to blunt Republican claims that regulation is strangling economic growth. While it is common for presidential candidates to move to the middle politically in the months before a tough election, the apparent shift is dismaying to Obama supporters who had counted on him to usher in a raft of progressive reforms.

The administration “has not shown the progress we were hoping for after the anti-regulatory, pro-business Bush administration,” said Katie Greenhaw, a regulatory policy analyst with the nonprofit advocacy group OMB Watch.

A White House spokeswoman denied that political considerations were involved, saying regulatory proposals are considered on their merits. “To say that each of these tie together into some sort of concerted campaign effort is just ridiculous and baseless,” said the spokeswoman, who asked not to be named.

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Yet among those who see the hand of politics in the recent regulatory pullbacks, the withdrawal of the farm labor rules was a vivid example. According to latest federal figures, 15 farm workers below the age of 18 were killed on the job in 2009. In addition, that same year 2,798 farm employees below the age of 18 suffered on-the-job injuries that caused them to lose time from work.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and other agribusiness interests argued that the proposed rules were cumbersome and threatened the family farm, even though they would have applied only to commercial farms.

A news release from the Department of Labor explained the decision to withdraw the rules as a “response to thousands of comments expressing concerns.”

The release emphasized the regulatory retreat by adding, “To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration,” a pledge that riled child safety advocates.

“Kids don’t have a vote,” said Mary Miller, a child labor specialist for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. “Adults have to be the responsible party and do the right thing.”

Along with the ban on youths working in grain-handling operations, the rules would have restricted teenagers from driving tractors or using other potentially dangerous equipment.

As another example of a pullback by the Obama administration, Greenhaw pointed to a postponement in the Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to set tougher limits on ground-level ozone. The lung-irritating gas is especially hard on people with asthma and other respiratory ailments.

The agency in September said the final ozone rules, which were due to be issued late last year, would be delayed until 2013. In a statement, the president expressed his support for strong environmental protection but said, in this case, he told the EPA to hold off because of “the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover.”

The EPA had estimated that the now-deferred standard would prevent as many as 7,200 deaths, 11,000 emergency room visits and 38,000 acute cases of asthma each year. The delay reportedly caught key EPA officials by surprise.

Critics also cite delays in a proposed rule to tighten limits on worker exposure to crystalline silica. The substance is a dangerous, breathable dust that can lead to lung cancer and silicosis, a respiratory disease.

Labor Department officials tried to update the decades-old silica rule in the late 1990s, but the effort languished. Job safety advocates hoped the Obama administration would finally adopt a new rule, but the latest version has been bogged down in the Office of Management and Budget, the arm of the White House that reviews proposed regulations, for more than a year.

In January, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group, penned a letter to the administration urging that it release the rule for public comment.

In the letter, the group noted that an estimated 1.7 million American workers in industries like mining and construction are exposed to silica every year and roughly 200 die from silicosis.

Some advocates say politics also may be slowing the writing of rules intended to curb food-borne illnesses and emissions from industrial boilers, while also hindering the EPA from issuing a list of “chemicals of concern” that would provide public warnings of health and environmental risks.

Still, environmentalists, in particular, have been handed a number of victories by the Obama administration over the past year. Those wins include the administration’s decision in January to deny, at least for this year, a permit for TransCanada to build the contested Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would bring crude extracted from Alberta’s tar sands, which would yield far more greenhouse gases than conventional oil, to Gulf Coast refineries.

Another expansion of environmental protection was the cross-state air pollution rule, finalized last summer, which targets contamination from coal-fired power plants that floats far away from its point of origin. And at the end of 2011, the EPA released final rules on a long-awaited limit on mercury emissions from coal- and oil-burning power plants.

In fact, Kenneth Green, a resident scholar at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute and an expert in energy-related environmental policy, says from his perspective, the EPA has unleashed a “regulatory avalanche” during Obama’s term.

At the same time, Green said the Obama administration has pulled back on some environmental policies, apparently to head off a perception among voters that “you guys don’t seem to be prioritizing for jobs and the economy.”

The outlook is different from the political left. “It’s not as bad as it could be,” said Rena Steinzor, president of the research and educational organization Center for Progressive Reform and a law professor at the University of Maryland. “But it’s a lot worse than we hoped, than he promised.”

FairWarning is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health, safety and environmental issues.

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